The First 100 Days: On the Environment, a President to be Proud of; An Agenda Just Beyond Reach

by Rena Steinzor

April 28, 2009

Inside the Washington Beltway, we are awash in stories about President Obama’s first 100 days. Some are comparative—how is Obama doing in relationship to Franklin Roosevelt at the same point in his first term? Some are pure spin—“[we’re competent and we love each other!]" opines Rahm Emanuel, the obviously biased Obama chief of staff. And some are substantive—has he kept his campaign promises and, if not, how many more miles does he have to go before he sleeps?

On the issues in our bailiwick, the President gets an “A” for effort, a “B” for execution, and an “incomplete” for the course as a whole.

First, the big picture. Just hearing a President talk about environmental protection again as if it were a very important item on the national agenda is enormously exciting, especially because the President has targeted climate change, the toughest and most urgent set of problems, as his priority. And President Obama puts that pledge in the context of a refreshingly different vision of government’s role in solving problems. For 35 years, Democrats and Republicans have bought into the excuse for inaction and small ambition that, as President Bill Clinton so unfortunately put it, “the era of big government is over.” President Obama is too smart to even entertain an empty debate over big versus small. He says that government’s role is to help people when they cannot help themselves. No matter what Chevron tells us about our individual responsibility for stopping climate change in its maddening series of corporate green-washing ads, this is one catastrophe that will take all the power of all the governments in the world to avert.

On a series of environmental issues, the new Administration has also taken a series of smallish steps, but unlike Chevron’s, these are significant because they prepare the way for bigger changes. The Obama decision to make decision-making more transparent, reversing the Bush Administration’s policies on keeping such matters secret, was terrific, and has already reaped benefits by allowing everyone to have their say on how to rewrite a new executive order on the Office of Management and Budget’s review of environmental rules.  We also must applaud the President’s announcement that John Holdren, his well-respected science advisor, will work hard to restore the integrity of the research used to support government policymaking. As for climate change specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement that it was starting the process for regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act was the first time ever that the federal government has actually done anything of consequence to address climate change.

Why, then, give the Administration only a “B” for execution? Well, I was over at EPA the other day and the gap between the political appointees and the career civil service is large enough to be palpable. Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the agency, has appointed a handful of special advisers, but otherwise rules alone. A series of mishaps with other appointments has slowed the nomination and vetting process to a crawl. To be sure, it is not yet as painfully slow and erratic as it was in the Clinton Administration, although arguably that particular bar is far too low. For a President with an ambitious agenda and an urgent set of problems, the absence of decision-makers at the middle levels of the agencies is a bad situation that could easily lead to major mistakes.

The “incomplete” on the course as a whole is obvious: despite what the pundits say and the history of the Roosevelt Administration tells us, given the world economic crisis and the Republican determination to filibuster everything in sight, no one should have expected any President, even this “transformative” one, to shepherd more than two or three huge pieces of legislation to the Rose Garden in this very short period of time. Unfortunately, though, on environmental issues, and most especially climate change, the train is not standing patiently in the station, but instead is in danger of being captured by hostile forces and driven at an accelerating speed out of town. President Obama is running after it, but it’s not clear if he will be able to jump aboard--much less retake the engine room--in time.

The trouble arguably started when the President succumbed to congressional leaders’ advice that he had to choose between health care and climate change as his top agenda item. He chose health care, for good reasons, but the decision exposed climate change to a horde of political defections, not least of which was the significant contingent of “moderates” and “conservatives” in his own party who flocked to distance themselves as Republicans continued to hurl the proverbial Molotovs over the fence—“biggest tax in history,” “we can’t afford it right now,” and even “we shouldn’t do anything until China goes first.” These defections are not the President’s fault, but they could define his legacy on this issue of planetary importance. Unless he somehow stops the political hemorrhaging, he may not be able to pull together a reasonably strong piece of legislation until an uncertain second term. By then, the challenge will be four years of pollution steeper, and other issues may have arisen to compete for attention.

The pundits agree that the President has amassed some serious political capital. Pride and optimism are returning to the American outlook. The guy’s smart, focused, decisive, and committed to facing up to challenges, rather than just kicking them down the road. He talks to us as if we were adults, acknowledging problems rather than ignoring or hiding them, and he does it without a trace of a sneer on his lips. His poise and communications skills are so impressive that his opponents are reduced to whining that he uses a teleprompter instead of memorizing his speeches. And while those same opponents hold it against him that he’s popular overseas, my hunch is that the vast majority of Americans stand up straighter when we see large crowds in other countries applaud him wildly. We feel not just relief, but pride.

Barack Obama has made a good start on environmental issues. But on climate change, the transcendent environmental issue, the matter is very much in doubt. It’s not too late, but it’s getting there. To pass a bill worth passing, he’ll need to spend a big chunk of his political capital, and do it soon. Every day that goes by without that investment raises the price he will ultimately have to pay.

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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